Go small or go home

iPhone SE an coffee
iPhone SE an coffee (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

When I first heard about the iPhone SE I wasn't that moved. After all, it was just a small version of an iPhone 6s without 3D Touch. It was the low end of the line product, clearly designed to bring the iPhone line onto a base level of performance and features.

Then a funny thing happened. I kept running into folks who were abandoning their state-of-the-art iPhone 6s devices in favor of the iPhone SE.

Madness.

But perhaps there was something else going on. Perhaps bigger wasn't better?

I've been an iPhone Plus user from the beginning. It has a great big screen and fantastic battery life. How could an SE replace that?

It was time to experiment. I dug out my trusty old iPhone 5s—the same form factor of the SE—and decided to see if I could live with it.

What was I giving up? Well, first there was that large, beautiful screen. There was the long-lasting battery. There was 3D Touch. With trepidation I popped my SIM into the old iPhone 5s and something funny happened. My iPhone was no longer a small iPad.

Small and light, I could slip the iPhone 5s into a pocket and it would essentially disappear. I could use it well with just one hand. And the battery life still got me through a full day and then some.

Sure, I missed the 128GB storage to keep tons of content with me. I missed the better camera, and the view that only the screen of a Plus could give me. It turned out, however, I didn't need any of that.

The size and shape was perfect. One-handed use was a delight. It turned out I didn't need a phone that could meet all my productivity needs. I didn't need to carry a lot of content, such as videos or games that I'd never used.

My colleague, Serenity Caldwell, spoke about this phenomena on our podcast right around the time of the iPhone SE launch, and it turned out trying was believing. When the iPhone stops being a primary computer it becomes a companion. Something that was there to help me run my life, not something that runs my life.

The first Blackberry I owned did pretty much one thing. Email. It was magical. I could see all my email out of the office, triage and respond as needed. My little iPhone brought back the delight of taking control of email. I could triage, respond quickly or defer until later. I could access Feedly, and Twitter. It turned out that inferior camera was being used more often because it was just easier and faster. It turned out that I could live without 3D Touch and not miss it. Even the processor of the iPhone 5s was more than adequate for me.

If only, there was something with that faster processor, a somewhat better camera, and support for Apple Pay—the things that turned out to be more important to me that size, store, and specs

If only there was... an iPhone SE.

It's clear that Apple might have underestimated the demand of the iPhone SE. As I write this, it's still somewhat constrained. Consumers defied the market trend of larger phones. It turns out there's a lot of folks for whom bigger is smaller.

It's important to move markets forward, but you can't always listen to the whims of the market, either. Henry Ford once supposedly said if he asked his customers what they wanted, they'd have said "faster horses." Sometimes, though, customers really do know what's best for them.

Perhaps Apple was looking a little too close at the competition, as well as the demands of press and analysts, to create larger phones. Perhaps that was the direction Apple could move toward as the technology for a good, larger phone experience was possible.

No matter, no vendor should be in the position of the king, who looks out the window, and sees his people marching by, who thinks, "I must find out where they're going so I can lead them."

For me, my iPhone 5s might be a little dated for my needs, but I now suspect there's a rose gold iPhone SE in my near future.

I’ve covered the personal technology beat for more than two decades at places like Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. I’ve also had the fun of contributing my $.02 on the topic at Computerworld, Engadget, Macworld, SlashGear and now iMore. Most recently I spent a few years at Apple as Sr. Director of Worldwide Product Marketing. On Twitter I’m an unverified @gartenberg. I still own some Apple stock.

57 Comments
  • Experienced the same after going from a Nexus 6 (pretty much the same size as a 6+) to a 5S I picked up second-hand online. While there are times I miss the larger screen (some feedly article titles get cut off), it is SO much easier and fun to use.
    Paired with an Apple Watch, I still get to use Apple Pay.
    I'll have to see what the 7 has to offer when it comes out, but even if I pick that over the SE, pretty sure I am going with the standard 4.7 model. No more big phones here.
  • I went from 6s to SE, too. So happy Apple kept the design and size in the iPhone portfolio.
    The SE gives me the original iPhone feeling again that went missing since the 6. Will stay with 4inches as long as Apple offers the size! Sent from the iMore App
  • Yeah yeah yeah doesn't matter but WHERE DID YOU GET THAT PEN!!!
  • Switched from a Samsung Galaxy S6 to an SE, my first iPhone. Love the size, the ease of use, in fact everything about it. Don't think I'll go large again in a phone. Sent from the iMore App
  • Get rid of the bezels and the iPhone 6 size would be the perfect size on earth. Just large enough to make videos and web enjoyable and small/thin enough to make it usable.
  • If they slimmed down the bezels they could get a 5" screen in the 6s size phone no problem. Then if they slapped an OIS camera in that I'd probably jump to that size with no problems. I came to iPhone from a 2014 Moto X and it had a 1/2" larger screen in the same overall size as the 6s. I thought I didn't want to lose that and wanted OIS so I went for the Plus. I definitely like it, but sometimes I wish I could get a 6s size phone with a slightly larger screen than the 6s and OIS. My wife has a 6s and using the same camera app/settings/etc. the same lower light picture comes out noticeably better on the Plus.
  • I have always preferred smaller phones I can fit in my hand, hide in my pocket and not feel like they are there, and while still getting the best battery life. I tend to be a heavy user so battery life is extremely important to me. I was using flagship Android phones since it's inception, but the SE drew my attention and I left Android in the dust. I have not been happier with my iPhone SE since it's day one launch. The last couple months with it I could not have been happier with my choice. I really, really hope Apple continues the 4 inch line and has all three sizes with mirroring specs so that we don't feel like we are cheated to have to go to the larger phones in order to get all the spec upgrades. Sent from the iMore App
  • I want a 5.5" screen in the same size package as the S7 edge. While I generally like my iPhone, it's far too big to use for me one handed at all. And the 4.7" is a little too small for me - plus losing out on OIS seemed to be a deal breaker for me. Switching to the SE would probably be too small for comfort at this point, but I would LOVE a smaller form factor phone.
  • The S7 edge ruins part of it screen real estate with the edge screen that i find useless and ufly Sent from the iMore App
  • I think the edge screen is completely useless and ruins the experience. I just want a 5.5" screen in a smaller package. Still get the screen real estate without having quite as large of a phone.
  • Big phones are meant for 2 handed use, if you don't like the size of the iPhone then go and join Android and buy yourself a Galaxy S7 Edge. I hate how small the bezels are on that thing. I like 6s Plus the way it is thank you, speak for yourself and not for other people. There are people like me who don't have great eyesight and the size of the 6 Plus and 6s Plus is perfect. Think about other people and not just yourself. Sent from the iMore App
  • Wow, could you be any more of a jerk with your comment? What about my comment had anything to do with thinking about just myself?! All I said was that I wanted a 5.5" screen in a smaller form factor. Make it a little easier to use with one hand, but still get good real estate. And I went with the 6s Plus over the 6s because I wanted the 1080p screen and OIS in the camera - I felt like the 6s was a step down in more than just size. I'm happy that you like your 6s Plus, I like mine too, I would just like to see Apple slim down the bezels a bit and make the phone a little bit smaller with keeping the same screen size - which would still work with your bad eyesight. Get off your high horse.
  • I like my 6s+, but all the coolest cases only come in the smaller 6s size :(. Guess that's the price for a big screen !
  • Go read most of his replies around here and you'll soon see that, yes, he could be any more of a jerk.
  • @tolani05: I always find it funny that people argue with their eyesight when it comes to the 6 (s) Plus. The homescreen and everything else is EXACTLY the same size as on an iPhone SE or iPhone 6 (s) - when you set the Fonts to the largest size it is the same as the largest size on the other phones. So the eyesight argument is kind of a bad/wrong one. The only thing you get is more screen real estate - that's it.
  • With the bigger screen of the 6s Plus I don't have to almost feel like I'm pressing my face up against the screen like I was doing when I had my 5s and most recently my refurbished 5c. Not only is the screen in the SE too small for me now, but it's hard to type on that tiny screen. Do my reasons are legitimate. Sent from the iMore App
  • I have the SE and I really like it a lot. However, I keep trying bigger phones because I'm curious. After each trial, I find myself missing the size of the SE.
  • i bought 6s and than..came SE !!!:(..on time to time think to sell 6s and buy SE..i think i will wait 2018.. Sent from the iMore App
  • Lol no Apple is definitely more intelligent and has more data than you analysts. Probably you are just biased since you like the SE. Is there demand outside of US for small screen phones? Even in US very small percent probably want small screens doesn't matter how much every you want to write and say the opposite.
  • That is big BS. Apple mentioned that they were surprised by the demand and I can say here in Germany the demand for the phone is huge as well. A lot of users just don't want a bigger phone.
  • That lot of users is probably 10% of Apple iPhone users. Still a lot but overall tiny compared to people who want the real phone. Apple isn't going to spend time and money on tiny percent of users who want a odd phone.
  • Which it showed by launching the iPhone SE. Apple needs this "tiny" user base because they held on to their iPhone 4/4s/5/5c and 5s too long (in Apple's view). So just appreciate that there's a market - not for an "odd" phone, but for a REAL small phone. And when it comes to the battery life and the "whole package" bit really is a much better deal than the 6s! Deal with it!
  • To **** with big phones. They're a pain in the a$$ to use and carry.
  • There is still a delay for the iPhone SE in Australia. Demand is high for smaller iphone. Also this phone is not cheap here.
  • It is because apple has such huge bezels on their devices. If apple would shrink the bezels, they could fit a 6s sized screen in a 5s body..
  • I've been an iPhone user since the 4s but and while I was using my 5s l tried the Lumia 535, while I hated WP, I liked the size which is 5 inches so when I returned the my 5s (which I was using at the time) I found it hard to go back to that 4 inch screen size and the battery life was terrible so I sold my 5s last year and got a Moto G got frustrated with it and Android Lollipop then a Nexus 6 and whilst I loved the size of the screen, it was humongous but I had become fed up with Android's quirks and I missed iOS and bought a 5c refurbished on eBay in January this year and I hated the 4 inch screen but I was just glad to be back with iOS (the 5c was only a stop gap til I got my 6s Plus in March, which is my current iPhone and love it) the 6s Plus is just right for me as I don't have great eyesight (being an Albino) and thanks to Apple's unrivalled accessibility options for bolder texts and larger fonts it makes an already fantastic user experience even better for me. I'll never go back to 4 inches but I'm glad the iPhone SE is around for people who like that size and value 1 handed use and portability. Sent from the iMore App
  • Holy run-on sentence, Batman!
  • I just went from a 6 plus to a 6s. Very happy with the reduction of size. 6s is still small enough to use with one hand, however they need to reduce the bezels. I am very tempted to go all the way back to the 4" but why would they leave out a 128gb option??
  • More daily Kool Aid from a former Apple exec. Luckily I know BS and marketing fluff when I read it. Posted from my Nexus 6P
  • See I love my 6s Plus. That's why this is only my first iPhone, because I just can't do small phones haha. But I respect the people who like small phones. Hopefully Apple keeps making 4, 4.7, and 5.5in phones. Sent from the iMore App
  • I go back and forth between the 6S and SE. I don't care about 3D Touch. Touch ID is fine on the SE - it's just super fast on the 6S. Sometimes I prefer the larger screen on the 6S. What has me going to the SE more often than not is that it's the ultimate pragmatic blend. The size is perfect for pocketing and one-hand usage, and the battery life is phenomenal.
  • I had the 6S+ and the galaxy S7 (awesome phone) and now have the SE. I love it.*
    Loving the one handed use. *my only sore spot is the crappy low res screen.
    yes it's bright and calibrated, but the resolution looks SO terrible after having the QHD 5.1" S7 Galaxy.
    of course apple displays are always cheap, low res, crap that was in 2010 android phones.
    The 326 ppi "is all you need" is complete BS.
    Apple needs to quit ripping people off and give them QHD standard 2560x1440 on the 6S+
    and 1080p on SE and 4.7"
  • I don't know how long you've had the SE, but if you're just recently breaking off the S7, give it some time. Your eyes will adjust to the lower res and not be craving the higher res from the S7. I just put my S7 up for sale on Swappa, so I know your feelings all too well, but the more I don't look at my S7, the more I'm fine with the SE's screen... if that makes any sense.
  • The ppi is not the only thong to consoder... The iphone 6s screen is way better thab the 4 even though both have 326 ppi and it is by no means low res Sent from the iMore App
  • People like you make my sick, yes the SE has a low res display but there will be compromises as its essentially a 6s in the body of a 5s either way respect the decisions Apple has made with the displays. Yes they're not S7 quality but it's a phone moron, not a plasma TV. Sent from the iMore App
  • Wow so much anger. Sent from the iMore App
  • He is full of anger and hatred. Just check out most, if not all, of his comments in here. He made one to me earlier that was definitely unjustified. This guy needs to calm down. There's no need for his name calling and hate-filled comments.
  • @JamesCinAustin I get annoyed when people bring their fanboyism and name calling slating the quality of screens Apple put on the iPhone whether it be the SE to the 6s Plus. I agree the 6s screen resolution is poor compared to the Android phones especially the S7 but something like the S7's isn't essential on a smartphone it annoys me when people say the 6s Plus has a poor display compared to the S7 Edge when it really doesn't. Apple have their reasons for putting a 1080p display on the 6 and 6s Plus. My anger has always been directed the ***** Android fans who slate Apple because it's Apple. I'm reasonable when Android fans are reasonable, Sent from the iMore App
  • Will you just STFU and go away please? You are such an asshol*.
  • I'm free to express my opinion moron. Sent from the iMore App
  • As am I - and you're an *******. Just read the replies to your idiotic posts and you'll quickly see I'm not alone in expressing my opinion.
  • 1080p is fine for the iPhone and there's nothing wrong with h it except for the price. No ones telling you to buy a 6s Plus quit trying to start a flame war. Grow up. Sent from the iMore App
  • I always thought that design of the 4inch iPhone was a really nice design since the iPhone 5 first came out. But over the years I learn to like the bigger phone and just recently got my 6s plus and love it especially the battery
  • The bigger the better. I love my 6s Plus and Note4!!!
  • I have an iPhone 6 Plus and I had Galaxy Note before that.
    I wouldn't go for a phone smaller than that - even the regular size 6 and 6s are too small.
    And I have never understood the "use with one hand" argument either. Apart from making a phone call which can easily be done with one hand even on larger phones, why would I (and that is my personal opinion) want to use the phone with one hand or even in portrait orientation? Typing (messages, emails etc), web browsing, picture taking or viewing, video watching, navigation - all of that is better when holding phone in landscape and when needed using a large keyboard which can be used with both thumbs without hitting the wrong buttons. If a person is concentrating on typing a message or whatever, what is the other hand busy with (hopefully not driving a car)?
  • "If a person is concentrating on typing a message or whatever, what is the other hand busy with (hopefully not driving a car)?" That's exactly what they do. I would need 10 hands to count the number of drivers I see every day texting on their phone while driving. Self-absorbed morons.
  • It's great for reading while eating, drinking tea or a drink. Could be anything...hopefully legal. I love using my phone one handed. It's great. It's like amazing.
  • I think if people already have a tablet they like then it's not as big of a deal about the phone size. IMO people with JUST a phone go for the larger size to cover more use cases. I could use an SE if it had OIS and I had an Ipad for stuff where the larger screen was needed.
  • As others have stated, I'd prefer a 5" display in the smallest possible form factor. Those top and bottom bezels take up an enormous amount of the physical size of the device. That said, I still prefer the industrial design of the SE much better than the 6(s). I like the slab sides. I find the phone much easier to hold and it also looks better. Now if I could only get Apple to reduce the radius on the corners. I'd prefer a more squared off look. And I don't actually rest the corner of the device in my palm, so no concerns about comfort. I actually tend to support the phone on my little finger while holding the bulk of the device with my remaining fingers from the sides.
  • The 4-inch iPhone screen is perfect for me. I like the idea of them revamping the innards of it with the iPhone SE. However I still have my reservations. Seeing an outward change in the 4-inch phones is what would push me into upgrading from my 5S. Seriously. Because then I would know that I'm safe with a 4-inch phone and won't be left behind.
  • You're safe because you have the same processor power than with the 6s. PLÜSCH due to the smaller display the power will be fine enough for the next years. Apple will surely have created the upcoming iOS 10 with the SE in mind as well. So we should be able to use all the upcoming features besides news for 3D Touch. Sent from the iMore App
  • I currently have the 6s+ and the last iPhone I had before this was a 4s, having spent most of time with an Android phone with their larger screens I went from a Galaxy S2 on Sprint to the 4s and loved the OS but found myself hating the 3.5 screen but I stuck with it. When it came time to getting a update I went back to Android because of the larger screen size and told myself when Apple released a larger screen 4.5 and up I would jump all over it, by the time I became eligible to update it was mid cycle between the 6+ and 6s+ so I decided to hold out for the later cause of the updated specs and that I have always been a S fan. Couldn't be more happy with my choice I played around with the SE and it's an Awesome phone but it gives that same feeling I had when I swapped from the S2 to the 4s.
  • I've got the Rose Gold SE. It's been fantastic. I've always liked smaller phones, personally. I switched over from the Sony Xperia Z5. Sent from the iMore App
  • For me the regular 6/6S feels like a toy. I can't imagine using an SE. I'm a Plus guy for life.
  • My 5s battery was horrible. Not sure what you mean by 'get me through a day and then some."? Sent from the iMore App
  • The battery life is different from how the 5s was. You really have to do a lot to get the battery down to less than a day of usage.
    It's hard to find a phone that will match that. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Considering how many people complained that they didn't want the bigger iPhones, I'm not at all surprised at the demand for the new SE. I am surprised that Apple was surprised. I'm still delighted with my iPhone 6. I already have an iPad mini so I didn't need the 6 Plus. Apple Pay was the must-have feature for me when I bought this one.
    I liked the new camera and the Live "Harry Potter" photos on the 6s, though I still don't understand the appeal of 3D Touch. But I bought the 6 on a two-year contract, so I'm not even considering an upgrade before this fall. My iPad mini w/ Retina display (mini 2) is still everything I could want in an iPad. I would consider upgrading if they decide to bring the Pencil to the mini, but not before. This is the ideal size for my purposes. Sent from the iMore App